Emergent Vegetation at Malheur Lake

Written by Beth Boos/ Phots by Beth Boos

Although the term ‘lake’ has been attached to Malheur Lake for many years, this term lacks in depth considering the continued fluctuation and overall decline in water levels over the past fifty years. It can be extremely difficult for people to grasp the sheer size and shallow depths of the lake without taking an airboat ride, and, unfortunately, this just simply isn’t a service that is offered to the public. However, I can absolutely confirm that you truly have to see it to believe it.

I spent my first several months working on Malheur Lake virtually from two thousand miles away. Designing a research project without seeing your study area in person is quite a challenge. Despite refuge staff describing it to me as best as possible, I experienced some shock as I went out on the lake for the first time in late March. Gliding around on an airboat in 1-2 inches of water is not something I’d ever done before, and when the deepest part of a lake only goes up to your knees, it’s initially a little concerning. I had to do some rethinking for the logistics of my project almost immediately after arriving at the refuge.

Growing up with the Great Lakes in your backyard, as I had, really puts this kind of environment into perspective. I can hardly consider Malheur a lake when its water storage suggests more of a wetland or marsh environment. The only problem with that characterization with the current conditions at Malheur is the lack of vegetation.

In Malheur’s geologic history, emergent vegetation such as cattail and hardstem bulrush dominated the scene throughout the lake. In this sense, it would be easily considered a wetland or, more specifically, a marsh due to its plant composition. This dense vegetation provides cover for waterfowl, breeding habitat, improves water clarity, and stabilizes the substrate. It is believed that the long duration of flooding in the 1980’s in combination with the introduction of carp led to the decline of emergent vegetation, but there have been many biotic and abiotic factors affecting this lake that could have also been triggers. Regardless, water conditions and growth of vegetation has significantly declined over the years. This has left us with our current state of high turbidity and scarce patches of vegetation extending out into the lake. It is our hope that by reestablishing vegetation and helping existing patches to expand we will begin to reverse some of the problems with the lake, and that is where my research comes into the picture.

As a graduate student with Louisiana State University, I am working with refuge staff and High Desert Partnership to determine how we can start restoration processes with emergent vegetation. My first focus is around existing vegetation: why are these clumps (cattail and hardstem bulrush) not expanding into the central portion of the lake? Both of these plants can reproduce by seed and through rhizomes, which are underground stems that produce additional shoots to the surface. There are several factors that could be inhibiting the expansion of these plants; our primary concerns are herbivory and wind-wave action. It is also possible that carp are disturbing the sediment through benthic foraging, although they do not necessarily eat the plants.

To test this idea, we have set up over thirty “exclosures,” which are basically hog wire panels that keep predators away from existing plants. Some of these exclosures also have hardware cloth on them (think chicken wire) that further limit the ability of small animals to get in and out. In addition, some exclosures have plastic sheet panels outside to reduce wind-wave action through the exclosures. This will hopefully prevent vegetation from being ripped out of the ground during high winds that we constantly experience here in Harney County. These exclosures are giving hardstem bulrush some form of protection, and identifying the threat to their expansion will be incredibly helpful in the future restoration of Malheur Lake.

We have also set up several hardware cloth exclosures without clumps in the middle. Cattail and bulrush are both prolific seed producers, so plants should also be able to grow from seed. These ‘germination’ exclosures are hoping to capture the impacts of exclosures on germination of seeds in the seedbank. There was success with this last year, where empty exclosures experienced exceedingly more growth compared to the area around it. We spread out the exclosures over an elevation gradient so that water levels and drawdown conditions would vary for each exclosure. Typically, drawdowns help aquatic vegetation to establish, but water levels are so variable on the lake on a day by day basis that even 10 feet of space can result in a large difference in water levels and availability. Additionally, several clumps of hardstem bulrush were transplanted to see if that could be a viable restoration option in the future. Some of these received hog panels, and we also have controls with just t-posts surrounding them.

My second focus for the project relates to the seedbank in the lake. There are many steps that must be completed for a seed to become a thriving vegetation clump. The most intricate step of the process is germination; there are species specific conditions for seed germination which include light availability, temperature, specific water levels, soil moisture, oxygen, and depth of burial. Even one centimeter of soil on top of a seed can inhibit germination. Because of the species specific needs, we have to determine what currently exists in the seedbank and if the seeds are viable. To accomplish this we have taken over fifty soil samples to a greenhouse to put them in ideal conditions, which should allow seeds to germinate. Once we are able to identify and confirm that the seedbank is still viable, we can move forward with a specific restoration plan. This is only a two year study, but it has large implications for the future of the refuge.

The Burrowing Owls of Sodhouse Lane

Written by Darrell Smith/ Photos by Darrell Smith

My wife Lorna and I are career wildlife biologists and ecologists. We belong to Friends of Malheur and enjoy working as volunteers at the Refuge.

Although we’re officially retired, Lorna is a member of Washington State’s  Fish and Wildlife Commission. I am the interim Executive Director of the nonprofit organization Western Wildlife Outreach,  which seeks to educate folks about our large carnivores and to advocate for coexistence with them. Our extended family loves Malheur NWR, and has been visiting this wonderful Refuge most years since the early 1980s.

Just 2 weeks ago, we returned from a wonderful week-long trip to the Malheur country with family members who are also avid birders and naturalists. BUT, we enjoyed a fascinating twist to an already great visit. After we’d set up our little RV camp in an appropriate area near the Refuge, a Burrowing Owl male showed up on our second evening to claim an abandoned badger burrow with a small colony of Belding’s ground squirrels right next door!  We were separated only by a fence and just 25 yards of the sparsely vegetated grassland which these beautiful little owls prefer for their nesting burrows.

That night, we went to sleep listening to the all night-long soft Cu-Woo, Cu-Woo, Cu-Woo calls of this dynamic fellow.  He was advertising forcefully for a mate. The next evening, the calls dropped off dramatically. We were worried he’d moved on. By mid-morning, he was standing watchfully at the burrow entrance as something in the burrow was sending small plumes of dirt into the air. Mystery solved a few minutes later as another beautiful little owl head popped up to look at us. His new mate was remodeling the home.

Over the following two days, we watched this confiding and active pair mate repeatedly at the burrow entrance. Pretty passionate stuff in one of the photos I’ve included. In the meantime, the male actively caught beetles and moths near the burrow, and later brought back at least one northern pocket gopher during deep twilight.

It was also very interesting to see the male bring back bits of aged horse and cow manure. His mate would later emerge from the burrow to select pieces of this to line the underground nest. This is a well-known feature of Burrowing Owl nest construction.

The females are known to lay six, eight or more eggs and to raise large broods. Many of the females begin to brood as soon as the first egg is laid and the young are born sequentially. During this time, the female drops mostly from view and the male rarely enters, but hunts day and night to provide food. This appears to have been happening during our last 2 days of our camp-out. Lots of views of the male, only a couple of fleeting glimpses of the female.

Despite their long legs and impressive wing-span, these are LITTLE owls. If you drink two cups of coffee in the morning, you’ve consumed more than the male and female weigh together (ave. about 6.3 oz apiece).  Also, unusual among the world’s owls and avian raptors as well, the male is typically larger than the female, as depicted in my accompanying photos. Nesting near humans may provide additional protection from predators. Red foxes in Oregon are known to use this strategy.

We all wish them well and hope this dynamic little pair are successful this year. If so, young should start to emerge over the next month. Due to habitat loss and many other factors, even, ironically, the killing of badgers (which are owl predators, but also provide their most useful nesting burrows) have led to dramatic declines in historic Burrowing Owl numbers on and around the Refuge and throughout their North American range.

Take care, little owls!

The Acoustics of Malheur’s Wet Meadows

Written by Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon

As most fans of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge know, Malheur is a large and ecologically complex place. Some of this complexity comes from its geographic situation near the Steens and as a snowmelt fed closed basin and some comes from the changes to the hydrology and ecology of the basin since the arrival of settlers. The lasting effects of changes in hydrology and ecology can be seen in various ways across the basin, including in vegetative communities.

For example, though reed canarygrass is native to parts of North America it has become weed-like as water management has changed. In areas that are continuously inundated with at least 3” of water, reed canarygrass thrives. One of the interesting things about reed canarygrass is that it can convert a field that appears dominated by sedges to a field of tall grasses within a season. The sedges are not necessarily replaced. Rather the reed canarygrass grows with the sedges. Because reed canarygrass changes the height and density of vegetation, there is some belief that many birds will not use meadows dominated by reed canarygrass. However, many studies in other high desert ecosystems indicate this may not be the case.

In an effort to better understand the effects of reed canarygrass invasion on bird communities some intentional monitoring work needs to be done in reed canarygrass dominated fields at Malheur. However, at nearly 190,000 acres Malheur can be a difficult place to effectively inventory and monitor bird populations. To better understand the effects of reed canarygrass dominance on bird populations, and to help create a climate resilient Malheur that continues to effectively support migrating and breeding birds there needs to be an innovative way to expand current monitoring efforts.

One current project associated with the Harney Basin Wetlands Collaborative and led by Portland Audubon is the seasonal installation of six songmeters in the Blitzen Valley. Three of these songmeters are in reed canarygrass dominated and three of these songmeters are in non-reed canarygrass dominated areas of flood-irrigated wet meadows. Songmeters, more technically known as Autonomous Sound Recorders, are basically computers that record the sounds of ecosystems in which they are deployed. They can be programmed to record as often and for as long (or short) as needed.

These songmeters were deployed this spring and will be retrieved from their fields by August 1st. They record for two hours at sunrise (one hour before and one hour after) and for two hours at sunset (one hour before and one hour after). They will record all vocalizing wildlife at that time, though the focus is on understanding which bird species are using these areas and whether or not reed canarygrass has a negative impact on wet meadow bird communities.

This project has two goals. The first is to understand the effectiveness of using songmeters for monitoring birds at Malheur. The second is to develop an understanding of bird use of reed canarygrass dominated meadows and whether or not there appears to be a difference in bird communities in these meadows compared to non-reed canarygrass dominated meadows.

Species Spotlight: Western Rattlesnake

Written by Alexa Martinez/Photos by Janelle Wicks

Being located in the Great Basin, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has a variety of scaly reptiles that call the Refuge home; such as, lizards and snakes. Snakes are definitely one of those species that tend to rub people the wrong way. But, they are a big part of every ecosystem. In the state of Oregon, there are fifteen species of snakes, but out of all the native snakes, the Western rattlesnake has poisonous venom that is dangerous to humans. (ODFW)

Western rattlesnakes can be found near rocks, cliffs or downed logs. But can also occur in wide variety of habitat types, from deserts and chaparral to open forests across Oregon. They overwinter in dens typically located on south-facing rocky hillsides exposed to sunshine. Their geographic region extends from Mexico to Canada and west of the Continental Divide and are mostly active from about April to November over most of their range.

Western rattlesnakes diet consist of small mammals, including mice, gophers, squirrels and rabbits, but will also take birds lizards, and amphibians. They use the pin in the face to detect infrared (heat) signals from potential prey and gives this group of snakes the common name “pit vipers”.

These snakes can be easily confused with gopher snakes and vice versa. A couple distinct ways to distinguish the difference is the distinct rattle and its large triangular head. Western rattlesnakes will also have vertical pupils while gopher snakes will have round pupils.

Unfortunately, because of the bad reputation snakes have, especially rattlesnakes are perceived, majority of persons’ instincts is to get rid of this creature. When you see a rattlesnake, just pause and slowly walk away in the direction, you came in. Most adult rattlesnakes have the knowledge of when it is worth to strike or not. This may result into dry bites (bites without any venom). Juveniles are more prone to strike with venom majority of the time.

A Magnificent Mother-Daughter Malheur Excursion

Written by Kimberely Stephens, Photos by Kimberely Stephens

I’ve lived in the Willamette Valley for the majority of my life. One of the joys I find is in visiting the refuges, observing, and photographing Oregon’s abundant wildlife. One day I got to thinking ‘I’d love to photograph Wild Mustang’s!’ Surely there had to be somewhere in Oregon that I could, so off to the internet to research I went. I was happily surprised that within driving distance, just a six-hour drive, there was a herd of Wild Mustang’s. Fondly, and might I say, appropriately named The Hollywood Herd!

Now that I’d found the who and where, I continued my research, and found accommodations near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge at the Steens Mountain Resort. Lovely people, comfortable, and very affordable. We now had our mother and daughter trip all planned.

Though, I must say, the internet was lacking on images of the landscape. I made a note to myself to rectify that and happily took many pictures of the stunning views.

We arrived Friday evening, checked in, and did a little surveying before dark. Setting out Saturday morning to explore what we could of the refuge in a day. The mountains, and of course to visit the horses. We began our morning as though we had spent the night right on the refuge. Not an experience one could have here in the valley, so it was a magnificent feeling.

Though, we were unsure what the weather might do in the middle of Spring. We were delighted the passing light rain left the surroundings clean and fresh in appearance. Nature just gave everything a quick rinse and left a beautiful rainbow in its wake.

I was delighted to have captured this image as though the road and clouds were going right under the rainbow.

I fell in love with all the contrasting colors. The Spring foliage of greens and yellows just popped against the dark trunks of the trees. Everything was visually pleasing, magical, and so charming. From Canada Geese, Red Wing Black Birds, Killdeer, Belding’s Ground Squirrels, Ring-necked Pheasants, to the Black-tailed Jackrabbit, and many other species. I never lacked a subject to photograph.

The day did not lack comical occurrences. One such was the longest piddle I’ve ever witnessed by a Mule Deer. Still working our way out to see the horses. We spotted a few mule deer crossing the field, to cross the road, to get to the other side of the refuge. This one (pictured above) stopped and squatted, so I grabbed the camera, thinking I’d better be quick. I started snapping pictures. Looking this way, looking that way, it was still going, took a few more pictures, still going… My arm actually got tired from holding the camera up, but the deer really had to go.

Another thing I found was the people on and around the refuge were so kind. Slowing down for the now very relieved mule deer to cross the road. I captured an image I’ve seen in various wildlife photos over the years. Now I had one of my own.

The Sandhill Crane has been on my list of birds to photograph. Previously, I’d planned on one day making my way to Sauvie Island, where they are known to frequent. Thankfully, I will not be having to drive through Portland traffic, and was able to mark this one off my list.

“We got Cows!” A statement that was said many times throughout our visit. In conjunction with the Cow Guards, you know those no matter how slow you drive, you get jostled when driving across them? We speculated many things, maybe it’s for the snow run off, or a gate that is raised when moving the herds? Nope, just invisible Cow Gates!

After returning home and revisiting our adventure. My husband had a good laugh that we did not know what these were. He explained that the bars in the road are spaced out enough that the cows will not cross because they know their hooves will get stuck. Well now that makes perfect sense! Smart cows! Us girls, well, it is open range. Not exactly something you find in the Willamette Valley. How were two city girls to know they were just invisible cow gates….

Finally, we had arrived to photograph the Hollywood Herd! Such beautifully majestic creatures and as if on que to a new visitor. They began trotting up from the salt flats, one by one, to three at a time, as though they were introducing us to their herd. We were given quite the show!

To say the least I got what I’d come for….to photograph the Wild Mustang’s!

We continued up the mountain to find the road was closed, which was completely alright with me, fear of heights, and Oregon’s most dangerous road and all…. so we turned back and I spotted this little critter just off the road. We were not sure if it was a badger or what it was, though, not the best of images. I did get one passable picture so we could look it up later.

Well later came instantly. As we were driving out, another visitor stopped to tell us there were horses on the road behind them. We told them what we had just seen, and they knew exactly what it was. A Yellow-bellied Marmot, aka, a Rock Chuck. Oh yeah, we went there! How many rocks can a rock chuck-chuck if a Rock Chuck-chucked rocks? Neither of us could say it three times fast but we did have a good laugh!

In conclusion, our visit was the perfect day, and so much fun. I have already booked my next trip and can’t wait to visit the Steens Mountain and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge again. On that note, if you have never been, I highly recommend making the trip. From the wildlife to the awesome people, to the tremendously gorgeous views, those skies, you will not be disappointed. Also, don’t forget to stop in at the Mercantile in Frenchglen for a souvenir. I always try to support locally owned businesses and the people were just amazing. Moreover, a hoodie is always a great buy for remembering a remarkable vacation, especially, if one lives in Oregon. I purchased two!

Until next time – stay Wild Mustang’s! I’ll be back!